Tornado Warnings Can Save Lives

May 29, 2011; 11:05 AM
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A photo of the funnel cloud that prompted the second tornado warnings for the city of St. Louis on May 25, 2011, as seen from a hotel room.

Are tornadoes really unpredictable, as some have stated, and is there anything we can do about them?

Nearly 1,200 tornadoes have been reported in the United States so far in 2011. Unfortunately, this year is destined for the tornado record books. Among these tornadoes, four have been deadly rated EF-5, which is the highest rated strength for a tornado. The death toll has surpassed 500, significantly higher than the average annual fatalities from tornadoes of about 60.

Meteorologists in both the government and the American Weather Industry have shown there is something that can be done. The experts at AccuWeather.com provide highly accurate and actionable warnings for specific sites and businesses. They have an outstanding track record.

And the government, through investment in enhanced warning infrastructure, such as Doppler radar and more awareness of severe weather events, protects the public and facilitates the critical predictive and warning role provided to the nation by the American Weather Industry.

While science does not have the tools to stop a tornado from touching down, meteorologists are able to drastically reduce the loss of life and property. Site-specific forecasts keep people informed well ahead of a tornado and provide enough time for them to take shelter.

Site-specific warnings allow businesses and public agencies to know when a tornado is developing and approaching their exact location. Importantly, such warnings can also tell such businesses and agencies, when a tornado is not a threat.

AccuWeather and other weather companies are able to track tornadoes at street level and provide timely warnings to businesses and government agencies, and make such technology available to television stations to enable the timely broadcast of warnings to the public, as well as send warnings to computers and mobile devices.

All industries, including retail, manufacturing, transportation and others, are weather sensitive and these weather industry forecasts protect employee lives, customer lives, and sensitive physical and intellectual property in a way nothing else can. The protection enhances continuity of business, lessening the impact of tornadoes on local economies.

For instance, AccuWeather's Severe Storms Center in Wichita, Kan., accurately sent out a tornado warning for one of its SkyGuard clients in the Joplin area a full 30 minutes before the tornado hit, helping to protect both people and property.

The AccuWeather Severe Storms Center also helps government agencies know when their shelter areas or locations essential to the continuation of public services are threatened. In that way, local relief and public safety services can avoid interruptions at a time when they will be desperately needed. And AccuWeather actually sells systems to emergency management agencies to better target the siren footprint, to match it to the tornado danger zone, and not alarm people who are in the clear and safe.

Multiple firms in the American Weather Industry offer excellent site-specific warning services for severe weather events. The problem is that many businesses and most localities are not informed about or do not take advantage of these services. New joint efforts of both the American Weather Industry and the National Weather Service are targeting this information gap. "This is an area where cooperation between government and industry is saving lives and property, creating jobs and helping the national economy by facilitating needed services in the private sector to businesses and places where people congregate. It is a model of success," said Barry Myers, CEO of AccuWeather.

During the Joplin, Mo., tornado, emergency community sirens sounded 18 minutes before the twister hit. However, the news media has reported many people appear to have waited to take action, took action that was not effective, or did not know what action to take, despite the 18-minute advance public notice.

The NWS has succeeded in increasing tornado warning times to an average of about 15 minutes, with some 20 minutes or more. This is a significant advance from decades ago. However, it has come with a price in terms of the high proportion of precautionary alarms given by the National Weather Service. This is not unusual as the NWS struggles to strike a balance between being safe versus being sorry.

Also, people appear not sure, in the fast-paced society we live in, if longer lead times may lead to public impatience, where a siren goes off and nothing happens right away. In a recent survey on AccuWeather.com's Facebook page, 90 percent of our fans who voted thought they only needed less than 10 minutes to get to safety when a tornado is approaching. Interesting, that belief is different from the prevailing concept that more warning is better warning.

While National Weather Service warnings are a boon to the public at large, they are not suited to the requirements of specific businesses. False alarms are inconvenient to the public but considered by most to be "better safe than sorry." This concept, though, is a serious issue for businesses. Businesses become impatient with repeated community false alarms that lead to work interruption, and frequent shutdowns might be factored in when making corporate decisions about when to close a plant permanently or relocate it.

It can also create other issues. "To a hospital, a false alarm takes the focus off patient care and forces medically difficult sheltering," said Mike Smith, Senior Vice President/Chief Innovation Executive of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions. "To an automotive plant, a rapid unplanned shutdown prompted by a false alarm, for example, can ruin automobiles being painted, at considerable cost."

Companies like AccuWeather provide pinpoint actionable forecast and warning services for the places where people congregate most - malls, stores, sports venues - and to business plants, facilities and workplaces. These will frequently provide precious additional time before the sirens sound or government warnings are broadcast, allowing action when time is precious.

Additionally, AccuWeather can tell businesses when they are in the clear; that is, that a tornado threat has cleared their facility, even though the sirens are whaling. Or it may be there is no threat to a specific location, and there never was, even though the media is telling people to take shelter. This information is of huge value to such locations and businesses, both in protecting people and financially.

Tornadoes, while violent, are small and of short duration. The services provided to businesses track tornadoes relative to where the tornado is and the business or venue is located. This is much different than government warnings that take a broad perspective across a whole county or area designed to offer the public the broader lead time and coverage.

For more information, please contact Justin Roberti, roberti@accuweather.com who contributed to the story.

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